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Report 21 / Europe & Central Asia

Media in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Given the critical role that the media played in the destruction of both Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the on-going role they play in fanning the flames of ethnic hatred, the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina has devoted much time, energy and money to this field.

Executive Summary

Given the critical role that the media played in the destruction of both Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the on-going role they play in fanning the flames of ethnic hatred, the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina has devoted much time, energy and money to this field.  Despite frenetic activity, however, there have been few breakthroughs.  Nearly 15 months after the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) came into force, the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina remain divided into three separate and mutually antagonistic components in Republika Srpska, Bosniac-controlled Federation territory and Croat-controlled Federation territory.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has a mandate to support the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina under Annex 3 of the DPA by way of creating conditions for free and fair elections.  Otherwise, the international community is also able to influence the Bosnian media via subsidies, training programmes, and its own media presentation.

The work of the OSCE’s Media Development Unit (MDU) and in particular its Media Experts’ Commission was extremely disappointing in the run-up to the 1996 national elections.  As a result, nationalist media were able to flout minimum standards with impunity.  The postponement of the municipal elections, however, has given the media development unit a second chance.  Critically, the MDU has new leadership and personnel who appear determined to play a more pro-active role and to respond rapidly to abuses.

Foreign donors, in particular George Soros’s Open Society Fund, the US Agency for International Development and the European Commission ploughed money into media projects in 1996.  However, only the Open Society Fund, which unlike the other principal donors has already been working in Bosnia and Herzegovina for many years and is largely staffed by Bosnian nationals with media expertise, appears to have a long-term strategy.  Donor rivalry and overlap in both training and subsidies are rife and a cost-benefit analysis of media investment indicates a poor return.  Moreover, the very number of media projects, which is out of all proportion to the size of Bosnia’s population and, critically, the limited number of able journalists, dilutes their potential impact.

The highest profile and most expensive project, TV-IN, which is otherwise known as the Open Broadcast Network and cost $10.5 million in 1996, has been a failure.  The fundamental problem was the desire for quick results.  The station went on the air one week before elections to give the impression of media pluralism.  It was not technically ready and lacked the journalists to make it a success.  Worse still, it was built on a network of small Bosniac stations and this has compromised the project in the eyes of both Croats and Serbs.

The other high-profile international media project, the Swiss-financed Free Elections Radio Network (FERN) which cost 2 million DM, also had negligible impact on the Bosnian media scene during the election campaign, despite going on air two months before polling day.  Although originally scheduled to close after the elections, postponement of the municipal poll gave the station a new lease on life and time to develop a quality product and to build up an audience.  It has therefore been able to evolve into an influential medium, albeit concentrated in Bosniac-controlled Federation territory, the part of Bosnia and Herzegovina where media are generally the most open.

The media approach of international organisations in Bosnia and Herzegovina is unimaginative at best.  The principal point of contact with journalists is a daily press conference which is held in English without translation.  While the foreign press corps is well catered for, Bosnian journalists feel that they are ignored and consider the international community’s approach imperialistic.

ICG proposes a series of measures for the international community which, if implemented, could help change the role of the Bosnian media from one which is exacerbating tension to one which could contribute to restoring trust between the country’s peoples.  They include:

  • Switching the focus of press relations from the international media to the Bosnian media and switching media relations work from English into the local language.
  • Initiating an aggressive public information campaign in the Bosnian media to explain to Bosnians what the international community is doing in their country.  This should include frequent appearances by international spokespeople on local television, weekly columns in Croat, Serb and Bosniac newspapers, and public relations on behalf of the many smaller non-governmental organisations working in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • Restructuring TV-IN and expanding FERN in such a way that TV-IN breaks away from the Bosniac stations which currently comprise the network, and that both TV-IN and FERN build Serb and Croat legs, in addition to their Sarajevo headquarters.
  • Using local expertise to help develop a co-ordinated media strategy that would involve rationalising investment to focus on quality, not quantity.

Sarajevo, 18 March 1997 

Report 232 / Europe & Central Asia

Bosnia’s Future

While the physical scars of the 1992-1995 Bosnia war have healed, political agony and ethnic tension persist. Real peace requires a new constitution and bottom-up political change.

Executive Summary

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH, or Bosnia) poses little risk of deadly conflict, but after billions of dollars in foreign aid and intrusive international administration and despite a supportive European neighbourhood, it is slowly spiralling toward disintegration. Its three communities’ conflicting goals and interests are a permanent source of crisis, exacerbated by a constitution that meets no group’s needs. The political elite enjoys mastery over all government levels and much of the economy, with no practical way for voters to dislodge it. The European Union (EU) imposes tasks BiH cannot fulfil. A countrywide popular uprising torched government buildings and demanded urgent reforms in February 2014, but possible solutions are not politically feasible; those that might be politically feasible seem unlikely to work. Bosnia’s leaders, with international support, must begin an urgent search for a new constitutional foundation.

The international project to rebuild Bosnia has had success: war’s physical scars are largely gone, and the country is peaceful. The political agonies, however, show the intervention’s limits. Years of well-intentioned reforms, imposed or urged, have left a governing structure leaders circumvent, ignore or despise. May’s floods left scores dead and thousands homeless, exposing the price of poor governance. With growing frequency, Bosnians ask the questions that preceded the 1992-1995 war: shall it be one country, two, or even three; if one country, shall it have one, two or three constituent entities, and how shall it be governed?

The heart of the problem is in Annex 4 to the Dayton Peace Agreement, known as the constitution (and in several changes imposed by courts and international officials). It defines BiH as a state of two entities, in effect but not explicitly federal, but also the state of three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs), and yet, simultaneously, of all citizens. A suffocating layer of ethnic quotas has been added, providing sinecures for officials increasingly remote from the communities they represent. The tensions created by constitutional schizophrenia are pushing BiH to the breaking point. A new design is needed: a normal federation, territorially defined, without a special role for constituent peoples, but responsive to the interests of its three communities and the rights of all citizens.

The state administration’s need to reform is made acute by a 2009 decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that in effect requires BiH to change the ethnicity-based way it chooses its chief executive and part of its legislature. Existing proposals try to squeeze the constituent peoples into an ostensibly ethnicity-blind structure on top of which a complicated network of indirect elections would allow party leaders to choose the executive with as little democratic input as possible. The EU and the outside world support this tinkering with Dayton to satisfy the decision, though such proposals have manifestly failed. Bosnians need to rebuild their political structure from the bottom up.

There is no consensus on where to start, but Bosnia may have to break from its political system based on constituent peoples and their rights. Crisis Group has not reached this conclusion lightly. It reflects long experience and observation that no one has been able to frame a broadly attractive vision on the existing flawed basis. With stresses and frustrations accumulating in all communities, Bosnia must conceive new foundations to survive. Agreement may take years and much experimentation and debate, but the search should begin.

BiH is home to three political communities: those primarily loyal to the Bosnian state, usually but not always Bosniaks; those loyal to Republika Srpska (RS), usually Serbs; and those desirous of Croat self-government, usually Croats. Giving the Croats what they want, their own entity to make a three-entity Bosnia, is absolutely rejected by Bosniaks. Building virtual representative units for the three communities, possibly with new emphasis on municipalities as basic building blocks, is intellectually plausible but requires a leap of faith few seem ready to take. A purely civic state is inconceivable to Serbs and Croats.

Neither leaders nor civil society have deeply explored alternatives to three constituent peoples in two entities; any consensus would take time. Nevertheless, the goal should be clear. The head of state should reflect Bosnia’s diversity, something a collective does better than an individual. The same body could be the executive government. Some decisions should require consensus, others a majority. All three communities should be represented, not necessarily in equal numbers. There should be no ethnic quotas; representation should reflect self-defined regions and all their voters. Poorly performing, unnecessary state agencies and ministries should be slimmed or abolished, with powers reverting to the entities; but the state would need new ministries and agencies required for EU membership. The ten cantons in the larger of BiH’s two entities, the Federation (FBiH), are an underperforming, superfluous layer. They could be abolished, their powers divided between the municipalities and the entity government.

Political culture is part of the problem; an informal “Sextet” of party leaders in effect controls government and much of the economy. A multi-ethnic coalition persists, election to election, with only minor adjustments. Membership is earned by winning opaque intra-party competitions in which voters have little say. Change in this system can only come from within: Bosnians should join parties and participate in genuine leadership contests. Sextet power is further buttressed by control of hiring, investment and commercial decisions at state-owned firms, a situation that chokes private investment and growth.

Bosnia is unimaginable without the work of international officials who did much to shape political institutions and implement peace, but the international community has become more obstacle than help. BiH is trapped in a cycle of poorly thought-out, internationally-imposed tasks designed to show leaders’ readiness to take responsibility but that put that moment forever out of reach. The only way to encourage leaders to take responsibility is to treat the country normally, without extraneous tests or High Representatives. The EU could signal a new start by stating it will receive a membership application – the first of many steps on the long accession road. It should then be an engaged, not over-didactic partner in Bosnia’s search for a way to disentangle the constitutional knot.